I am a Christian hipster! I live in Brooklyn, N.Y., the second favorite American city of Christian Hipsters, I refer to Eugene Peterson as my “Pastor on Paper” and recently quoted he, Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton in a presentation to my church’s men’s ministry. The fact that I’ve just finished a Marilynne Robinson novel, have a Søren Kierkegaard book in my Amazon shopping cart and watch Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence at least once a year, firmly place me in the category of Christian hipster. I thought it important to acknowledge this fact up front. Brett McCracken, author of the recently published book, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, the subject of the following discussion, confesses his Christian Hipster-ness up front. I thought it only fair to do the same.
Please note that this is not a book review, but a conversation during which I gained a better understanding of Hipster Christianity’s implications for those of us who are responsible for communicating the mission, identity and personality of the local church to its existing and prospective worshiping community.
For whom did you write Hipster Christianity? What did you hope that reader might take away from the book?
Brett McCracken: My target audience is pastors and church leaders; people that are in the process of figuring out how to communicate Christianity to the world and how to engage with the culture; people who are acutely aware of the tension between Christianity and culture and power. I wanted the book to be a resource for them, to make them aware of some of these trends of hipster Christianity.
Who are Christian hipsters?
Brett: Christian hipsters are those who are rebelling against evangelical Christian culture, which has been this huge force for the last couple of decades. They have grown up in evangelical culture and they are a little bit desensitized with it, the excesses of it, the mega-church kind of “McMansion” style Christianity. The Christian hipsters really want to reengage with the broader culture and be relevant in the conversations that are going on in the world, in all areas of life, secular and religious.
How does a church, which authentically desires to put forth a face that is relevant and real, do so without falling into the trap of “wanna-be-cool”?
Brett: If we seek to be relevant in the sense of a community that embodies a gospel of transformation and renewal, then we’re pursuing the right relevancy. That’s where we want to be able to express our relevancy to the world. It’s a difference of where we put the emphasis on relevance: Is it trendy and fad-driven or is it transcendent and long-lasting, emphasizing the eternal aspects of Christianity.
What message does hipster Christianity offer to the folks who are responsible for the visual communication of the church: The bulletins, the websites, the videos and postcards?
Brett: I would encourage communicators to be mindful of the fact that while it is important to package things in a way that will connect with your audience, I also caution you not to be susceptible to the fads of the day. Instead, focus on the content of the message. Ultimately what will connect with the audience is the message itself, and what is being communicated.
What do you think about the engagement of technology and the church?
Brett: I feel like we should not all just jump on a certain technological bandwagon before we think about the pros and cons of technology. What does it add to the way that we’re communicating? What does it take away? I’m a big fan of being mindful of those things and then talking and thinking them through, before running to the Apple store.
If there were a couple of things that you would want to make sure that church communicators keep in mind, as they do their work, what would they be?
Brett: First, realize that if you focus your communication style on a particular demographic, then you run the risk of alienating others. Ultimately, I think the church should be a diverse body. It should be a place where everyone feels at home and no one feels like they’re not cool enough. Alienation is the worst kind of thing that a church could do. This is important to keep in mind when you’re designing materials and when you’re figuring out how to communicate yourself and express yourself.
Second, remember to focus on the message and, what, at its core, Christianity offers to people. Ask yourself, what is it that you want people to experience when they come into church? Because what people are attracted to may not be what the experience of Christianity actually is.
Did anything that you learned during the course of your research surprise you?
Brett: One of the interesting things that I found, but didn’t expect to see, was that a lot of these hip churches have very deep, rich theological teaching. You hear a lot about how the young people today have such short attention spans that they can’t really handle long form preaching and that they need bite size, short, flashy communication. I’ve found in a lot of cases that the opposite is true. We shouldn’t default to that mindset. We should instead focus on teaching and preaching Christianity that is rich with meaning and complex and intellectually nuanced. If we focus on that, people are going to find that interesting and I think that’s what people want from Christianity. They want it to be something that is deep and interesting and complicated, and not this simple, surface level experience that they may have perceived it to be in the past.